Retro Reviews: A Touch of Sin


Director Jia Zhangke.

A Touch of Sin (2013) takes place in modern China. It’s a dark journey into the desperate lives of four ordinary people. Injustice, loneliness and oppressive forces out of their control lead them to lash out in violence.

The film struck me as director Jia Zhangke’s very Chinese answer to classic spaghetti westerns such as The Good, The Bad and The Ugly or Once Upon a Time in the West. In this harsh, unforgiving world, the odds are stacked against the common man. He must either kill, die, or succumb to degradation and enslavement.

(A Touch of Sin’s action-packed opening scene.)

Entrenched corruption of local officials, corporate exploitation, the oppressive traditions of village life, sexual violence against women. Each character’s daunting struggle plays out in four distinct, but loosely connected segments. Jia Zhangke weaves them together skillfully. Many of the same characters pop up throughout the film.

Jia Zhangke juxtaposes scenes of modern street life with ancient architecture. Traditional Chinese opera appears unexpectedly. The opera characters face similar challenges to their modern-day counterparts. The film winds through vastly different corners of China. The director makes it clear these struggles are engrained deeply on the Chinese psyche.

The cinematography is stunning and the tales engrossing. Jia Zhanke uses a neo-realist style to emphasize a bleak and gritty reality. Yet, just as he occasionally tosses in a glimpse of ancient China, he adds an occasional surreal scene for emphasis.

The film is full of complex subtleties. I have watched it probably a dozen times and always discover something new and interesting.

Some American critics and film buffs ignored this masterpiece, panned it, or greeted it with a yawn. Many misunderstand it as a critique of the current Chinese government or an attempt to imitate Quentin Tarantino.

Yet Tarantino relies on fast cutting, lots of gratuitous violence, and larger-than-life characters who might have stepped out of a comic book. Though colorful and iconic, they lack thorough development. In contrast, Jia Zhanke builds up to horrific, violent climaxes with patient, almost plodding, character and plot development. He doesn’t wow with flash or inject comic relief. His characters are unique, tragic heros.

Jia Zhangke makes no attempt to be accessable or to entertain. He inserts you into his characters’ brains. There is no relief from their dark and depressing world.

That’s why many might find this film difficult to watch.

The stories are based on recent, controversial news events in China. Filmed entirely on locaton, it is in Mandarin with English subtitles. Government censors have never lifted its ban from mainland China.

The film won best screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival. Netflix currently streams it. Not appropriate for children.

A Touch of Sin is often touching, always tragic, and provides a rare glimpse deep into the Chinese character and culture.

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